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Matinee: 'Michael Koerner: Hibakusha' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

18 July 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 262nd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Michael Koerner: Hibakusha.

This short piece produced by the Catherine Edeman Gallery introduces an exhibit that opened last week and runs through Sept. 10 at the Chicago gallery. "Hibakusha" is the Japanese word for a person affected by exposure to a bomb, specifically the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of those bombings.

Michael Koerner is both a scientist and photographer, as well as a hibakusha in a certain sense.

Born in Okinawa on an air base in 1963, he is the oldest of five brothers but he is the only surviving son. His first brother lived only a few days. The second was still-born. The third was a third-term miscarriage. His youngest brother lived to the age of 32 before succumbing to cancer of the lymphatic system.

"My brothers' fates, and potentially my own one day, can be linked to my parents' individual exposure to gamma radiation from those separate, historic atomic detonations," he says.

His mother, who lived 40 miles from the Nagasaki blast, was 11 at the time. And his father was exposed to radiation from a nuclear fusion test during the Navy's Operation Castle Bravo.

He explains how the effect of this on his art:

This family medical and genetic history and my experiences with "survivor's guilt" drive my "artist's hand." I like to call my art purposefully abstract. I make distinct chemical choices (developer type, placement, amount, temperature, concentration, etc.) and over-all design decisions in the darkroom, but for each art piece (just like it is in genetics), the final outcome is ultimately out of our control.

The video shows the Hibakusha exhibit installation accompanied by some upbeat music. And everyone is wearing masks. It concludes with a short walk-through.

The series was created to honor the anniversary of the bombing and pay respect to both those who passed away and those who survived.

I wanted to bring attention to those that survived the blast, including my mother, who unfortunately later succumbed to the effects of radiation released on the Japanese people. I decided to make large tintypes that look like families or people. All the plates are purposely void of color, except silver, which is intrinsic to the tintype process. By eliminating the blue and green hues that are prominent in my recent work, the images take on a haunting glow, reminiscent of the light that appeared in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hope viewers will look at these images and reflect on what happened so many years ago and honor those that survived and perished from this nuclear disaster."

We found the video a welcome introduction to his work but you'll not doubt want to explore the intricate abstract works, which he calls chemigrams, in more detail than the video can provide.

Chemigrams are cameraless images made in the darkroom with chemical cocktails to create kalitypes, cyanotypes, tintypes, platinum and palladium, ambrotypes, wet plate collodion negatives and others. He uses an enlarger to expose the light-sensitive material.

"Some chemical mixes are angry and aggressive and will quickly plate-out elemental silver metal, while others are calm and patient and take their time building texture or color," he says. "The bottles line the inside of my eight-foot long darkroom sink like soldiers at-the-ready to enter the fray."

You can see his work on Instagram as @thecollodianchemist and on his site The Photo Experimentalist.

Beautiful in their own right, they are also a unique and haunting salute to those who suffered that moment history changed.

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